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Happy International Carrot Day!
Today is also National Chicken Cordon Bleu Day, the United Nations’ International Day for Mine Awareness, Tell A Lie Day, National Hug a Newsperson Day, World Geologists Day, and National Walk Around Things Day.
These manufactured holidays get established at an alarming rate for myriad reasons: to be funny, to raise awareness about serious societal issues, to honor undervalued occupations, and often to create social media marketing opportunities. International Carrot Day got its start in 2003 to help spread the word that carrots’ high level of beta-carotene and array of phytochemicals can help keep bodies around the world healthy. By 2012, carrot-crazy people in France, Italy, Sweden, Russia, Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan were wearing carrot costumes and throwing carrot parties.
I don’t have a costume to don, and I can’t have a party during the pandemic. But I’m happy to celebrate the day culinarily – not only because the Easter Bunny loves them – but because I do. I love carrots roasted in the oven with thyme, raw with hummus, pickled with onions and shaved into salads. They are always in my fridge. I have learned that should they linger there long enough to become limp, they can be revived by clipping their tips and letting them sit overnight in a glass of cold water. If they unexpectedly freeze when your fridge is on the fritz like mine is, though, there’s no reviving them. It’s best to puree those into soups where they will add flavor even if their cell walls got busted in the deep freeze.
Orange carrots are credited to the 17th-century Dutch, but carrots come in many colors.
Carrots as a plant species have a long history. They are believed to have originated in ancient Persia. Seeds have been found in Switzerland and Germany that date back to 3000 B.C., where they were mainly cultivated for their fragrant leaves, which were used medicinally. The first mention of eating the plant’s roots appeared in classic Roman texts in the first century A.D. The Moors introduced them to Spain circa 900. The Dutch are widely given credit for engineering an orange version of the previously purple root around 1600.
While the popularity and consumption of carrots has been on the rise for eons, scientists say the nutritional value of the vegetable has, in fact, declined over time. In a landmark study published in 2005, University of Texas professor Donald Davis looked at USDA data from 1950 to 2000 and saw a marked decline in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C across 43 varieties of fruits and vegetables, including our celebrated carrot. Other studies funded by the organic farming researchers include similar findings.
Davis and his colleagues say the decline is a result of breeding vegetables for size, growth rates, yield and pest resistance, but not nutritional density. Another factor in this nutrient loss is the depleted soils that most conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables are grown in today. Growing the same crop at a large scale in the same field with the same fertilizing and pest management inputs can zap, over time, the nutrients in the soil that are available to the vegetables growing in it.
Regenerative agriculture practices – like low and no tilling of the soil, increasing the diversity of the plants grown in a single field, using rotational cover crops to let fields rest every few years, using compost instead of chemical fertilizers, and integrating grazing animals into the mix – can rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity. The result is nutrient-dense soil that can pull carbon out of the air to help fight climate change, hold onto water better, and grow more nutrient-dense carrots.
While today’s holiday (and no, we don’t mean Easter) may be happening on an international scale, the matter of buying the most nutritious carrot is more of a local one. Because carrots are storage vegetables, they are usually available year-round in Maine at farmers markets and farm stands up and down the state. The next time you buy a bunch, ask the seller about the health of the soil in which they were grown. If they don’t have an answer, keep shopping until you find a farmer who can give you the dirt on their soil; that likely means they take great care of it.
Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]
The carrot tops are edible, too, and are used in this recipe for garnish. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Stovetop Carrots with Cumin and Lemon Yogurt
I credit vegan chef and cookbook author Bryant Terry for this recipe. In his book, “Vegetable Kingdom,” he uses the oven, baby beets, non-dairy yogurt, agave nectar and orange zest, whereas I use my stovetop, multi-colored carrots, cow’s milk yogurt, honey and lemon zest. But the overall combination of flavors in this dish is his. The toasted cumin seeds make this dish sing, so don’t skimp on them.
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side dish
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup yogurt
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pound mixed carrots, peeled, ends trimmed, sliced lengthwise
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons parsley or carrot top leaves, to garnish
Place a large skillet over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds. Toast the seeds until you can just start to smell them, about a minute. Turn off the heat and transfer the seeds to a small bowl, add the lemon zest, stir to combine and set aside.
Combine the lemon juice, yogurt and honey in a measuring cup and set aside.
Place the now-empty skillet over medium high heat. Add 3/4 cup water and the salt. Add the carrots. As the water boils off, it will steam the carrots, a process of 3-4 minutes. When all the water has evaporated, add enough oil to just coat the carrots and cook them until they pick up a little pan-seared color, about 2 minutes.
Transfer the carrots to a serving platter. Drizzle with the yogurt mixture. Sprinkle with the reserved cumin seed-lemon zest mixture and the parsley or carrot tops. Serve warm.
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